Seznec Sees Steady Baby Steps Toward Democracy in the Persian Gulf

November 26, 2003
Seznec said reforming Saudi Arabia's judiciary system would be a key step toward democracy.

Surging population growth rates in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have been creating public pressure for greater participation in government even before the United States began saying that it wanted to foster democracy in the region, but democratic change will nonetheless be slow and hard-won, Columbia University professor of international and public affairs Jean-Francois Seznec told the J.B. Moore Society of International Law Nov. 24. Seznec, an expert on the Gulf who has also worked as an international banker in Bahrain , spoke on "Can Democracy Spread in the Persian Gulf?" He also holds an appointment in Georgetown University's Center for Arab Studies.

With a population growth rate tracking at nearly 4 percent a year, Saudi Arabia is facing a "time bomb" that is foreshadowed by current unemployment among young men at roughly 25 percent, Seznec said. "The royal family knows they have to do something about it," he said, but the politics among its thousands of members is so complex and the potential loss in income to them so distasteful that a long and delicate period of intra-family negotiations will most likely be necessary before meaningful changes happen.

Seznec said the Saudis do not like the U.S. presence in Iraq, nor its talk about creating a democratic example for the rest of the Middle East there, but fear American failure even more because it may lead to broader warfare in the region.

He said the Saudi royal family, which believes it has been a loyal partner to the United States over the years, was deeply offended by Wall Street Journal editorials doubting its earnestness in the War on Terrorism. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has since been reduced to purely commercial considerations, Seznec said, rubbing his thumb and fingers together to say that only money talks now. Seznec added that Saudis are likely to buy weapons from French companies in the future. "Osama has won," he said emphatically.

Heavy Saudi investments in the kingdom's health system and school over the last 30 years have resulted in a much larger, healthier, and better-educated population with higher expectations for political participation. In 1991, petitions were presented to the king asking for elections, rights for women, and an independent judiciary.

In response an appointed parliament, the Majlis Al-Shura, was created. Dominated mainly by technocrats, it is now 120 members strong, Seznec said. Its advent was "a big first" and it has gradually grown in prestige. "It's opening is now shown on TV as if it's the parliament in England. Now it even passes laws," among them reforms such as ensuring that those accused of crimes have lawyers to represent them.

"The main thing in Saudi Arabia is that the public has really opened up. Now you can hear complaints about corruption and the royal family. The press actually discusses it," he said.

In 2002 and 2003 petitions were once again submitted, again asking for the same changes.

"The crown prince's answer was, 'We will have elections,'" Seznec said. 'But they will only be at the municipal level and only for half the seats. The rest will be appointed by ministers."

But further liberalizations are expected. "Rumor has it that women will be allowed to vote," said Seznec.

Shifts toward democracy are also happening in neighboring Bahrain and Qatar, he said, but Kuwait, nominally the most democratic state in the region, is in fact "dysfunctional," in terms of enfranchisement. Of its 1.9 million citizens, only 140,000 men are allowed to vote.

While the trend is positive, democratic structures now appearing in the region might not yield moderate governments. "If you had a liberalization of the system today, it would result in governments opposed to the Americans.

"Islamists won the elections in Qatar and Bahrain. With no civil society, the only people who can get the vote organized win the vote," he said.

"All these reforms have come from the top, from the crown family members. These countries have been totally controlled by their royal families. They are extremely corrupt. Princes are above the law. No judge will rule against the royal family."

For that reason the key reform is the demand for an independent judiciary, he said. "That will really change the society. Corruption is illegal now, but no one will arrest a prince or rule against him."

The royal family itself is rather democratic in matters of succession, he pointed out. There is a presumptive heir to the crown, but to be legitimate he must be acclaimed by a consensus of the family within a day of the former king's passing. This means that contenders for the throne must curry the favor of family members and princes resort to corrupt practices to fund their need to buy loyal constituencies. This incites the public and fuels the demand for the right to political participation. "But the king can only do so on the backs of the family who is electing him," Seznec said, and there's the rub. "They know if they give in on certain items, some control is going to go… It's very slow for the king to be able to do this." He reiterated that the key concession would be an independent judiciary. "I am not pessimistic about democracy, but it will take time and they will do it on their own terms."

Seznec said another avenue for promoting democracy is getting Saudi Arabia to join the World Trade Organization, which requires member nations to have "transparency" in their domestic laws.

These developments must be seen in relation to the political economy of oil, Seznec said. Saudis are interested in following the French lead, also supported by Russia, to price crude oil in euros. The emergence of a euro market in oil to compete against the dollar market portends higher oil prices-potentially much higher-for the United States, he said. The Saudis are concerned about Iraq 's potential to ramp up production capacity to the point where they could challenge the Saudis' pivotal ability to affect prices. The Saudis have also been building cash reserves in case of a price war with the Russians. Saudis prefer that the crude price stay between $22 and $28 a barrel. They fear more expensive oil, a goal of the Russians, is likely to give the West incentives to develop alternative energy sources. Seznec also noted the Saudis' ongoing efforts to develop their petrochemical industry. They now make 10 percent of all the world's chemicals derived from oil and are aiming to reach 25 percent by 2020.

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